Book Club / Everything except Raw Strength

Batman:
The Dark Knight Strikes Again
Written by Frank Miller 
Art by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley






 

Who’s up for a sequel that breaks all the rules for how a sequel should be done? That’s right – we’re doing The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank “Crazy?” Miller and Lynn “My eyes!” Varley. Is Batman punk rock or corporation stooge? Is this the point where Frank Miller lost it forever? And why does no one talk about Lynn Varley?

 

Imagine if Jesus was owned by a corporation.

 

So. I do this podcast thing with my friends called Kraken (exploring the depths of culture, politics, technology, and that; each week taking a Thing then diving into a related Question. Join us among the tangents and tentacles). The last episode we did we were lucky enough to have Dan White on (Dan White = Mindless OneSILENCE!Cindy & BiscuitComics Journal intervieweeLondon Graphic Novel Network participator etc – Hi Dan!) and (obviously) we did talking about Mr Darkness No Parents himself: Batman

 
At the risk of grossly misinterpreting Dan’s views (but – hey – that’s what the internet is all about right?): one of the ideas that came up was: hey! Batman’s great right? He’s like a modern day folk hero! Robin Hood all dressed in black! Only he’s one of the rich and he beats up the poor – which is basically the same thing right?
 
Right. 
 
Only well – Robin Hood doesn’t have the same market share as the Dark Knight. 
 
I mean: maybe I’ve got this wrong and someone can come up with some counter-examples (and I get the feeling that I’ve said this before): but Batman is basically the most well-known and popular character since Jesus right? Like: at this point I’m sure there are people on undiscovered islands who know who Bruce Wayne is. 
 
Only the big difference between Jesus and Batman is that Batman is owned by a Multinational corporation (I mean – without wanting to get all Godspeed You Black Emperor about it: Batman is an intellectual property owned by DC Comics who are owned by Warner Bros who are owned by Time Warner): and erm – without wanting to go off the deep end too much – I’m pretty sure that Batman’s popularity is more to do with the fact that billions of dollars have been spent on promoting and disseminating his image into our brains. 
 
Don’t get me wrong: I mean – I love Batman. He’s cool. In fact – maybe even more than cool: as kinda – when I think about it there’s probably a pretty good argument that he’s where the definition of cool comes from: he’s super-rich, he’s a ninja, he’s smarter than everyone else in the room, he’s sexy, he’s a playboy, he’s got a cool wardrobe, exciting gadgets and etc and so on. He’s the platonic ideal of GQ Man of the Year. 
 
The thing that’s weird tho is that me liking Batman comes from a lifetime of exposure to Time Warner doing their thing. The comics and films and cartoons and so on. He’s been sold to us. And even if we claim ownership for ourselves – he’s not ours. He’s owned by the bad guys. He’s like the holographic President in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. 
 
Oh yeah – The Dark Knight Strikes Again. The most hated sequel since – erm – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? 😀
 
I mean: I’ve always kinda loved DKSA (apart from last year when I reread it after we did Holy Terror and yeah that was kinda – well: having Holy Terror in my mind kinda made DKSA feel ugly: so was kinda relieved to start rereading it today and finding that actually: it’s all good and as bouncy and as spiky as giddy and as fun as I always remembered it). 
 
But hey: what do you guys think of Batman? Or the new movie? Or whatever? 
 
 

 

Well, I think to clarify, I was more interested in Batman being something akin to a 20th century folklore figure – same with Dr Who. He’s a character with some core, ingrained elements of his mythos, but one who crosses through various mediums and artforms, whose richness as a character comes from the various tellings, retellings, re-interpretations and re-modellings for the last 75 or so years. The Batman in whatever current comic DC is publishing is also the Batman in the computer game, the TV show, the lunchbox, the other TV show, the cartoons, the ones that kids pretend to be, the one who’s the punchline of the joke “How does Batman’s mum call him for dinner…”

 
He might be a slab of monumentally profitable IP, but he’s also a fascinatingly tenacious pop cultural icon. 
 
 
 

 

Hey Dan! (waves)

 
I mean yeah – you’re totally right: Batman is a fascinatingly tenacious multifaceted pop cultural icon / 20th century folklore figure. And well hey the stuff I say/write/whatever tends changes in response to whatever comes before. It’s probably some-sort of permanent brain damage caused by doing a philosophy degree. You know: here’s an idea – what problems can you see with it? And well yeah – if someone was all like: “Batman? Isn’t he just for kids?” then I would take a deep sigh and start a rant about how he’s one of the most potent and omg super-interesting characters of all time. I don’t wanna sound like I’m Grant Morrison or anything: but Batman is an hyper-adaptive idea parasite that will probably never die. In the 853rd century the idea of Batman will still exist and will probably be more powerful than ever. 
 
(or then again – will it? Maybe the cultural dominance of Batman is just a blip and – come the revolution – we’ll be superheroes ourselves and will no longer feel the need to live vicariously through our fiction or whatever: I dunno). 
 
And well yeah: what with the new Zack Synder movie the various parts of the internet / humans that I interact with all seem to be infected with the same tendency to – how do I put this? Take personal ownership of Batman or Superman or Wonder Woman or whatever: and leads to things been said that personally – I dunno – I find kinda strange and suspect. I’m trying to think of the best examples of the kinda thing I’m talking about – but the only example that currently springs to mind is talking to a friend about the Batman/Superman film last year before it came out and him saying things like: “Oh man – they’ve got to get it right. I mean – come on! It’s Batman and Superman! And frankly – they need to make the film that these guys deserve. Am I going to go see it? Of course I’m going to go see it! It needs to be seen! It’s a once in a lifetime moment.” 
 
I mean I know I’m prone to blabbering on about ideology and whatever – but come on: Batman is the ultimate brain parasite. And the way we approach him – and all the other superhero characters and whatever (call it geek culture if you want) doesn’t seem like something that’s good. 
 
Or to put it another way: it kinda feels like our culture loves characters over creators. And I kinda feel like that’s messed up. 
 
Don’t get me wrong: at points I can be just as much in thrall to this kinda stuff as anyone (like it would take a really really terrible writer to become show runner to make me stop watching Doctor Who – altho: I must admit I am kinda a fan of both Russell T Davis and Steven Moffat so): and maybe there is something innate to humans that means that they’re just more into the intellectual properties rather than the people who make them: but I call bullshit. Especially because – well – it’s in the vested interests of the multinational corporations to make us care more about Batman than we do about Bill Finger (who?) so erm yeah: the titles being all like: BATMAN BATMAN BATMAN and trumpets and fireworks and then in small print underneath: “Written by thingie. Art by so-and-so.” Like just going by library life – Fiction is shelved by author. And comics are shelved by – well: comics are shelved in a haphazard mess because there’s a constant fight between just putting all the Batman books together or going by the people who wrote it or whatever (personally – I recommend shelving by the first letter of the character or title: but we probably shouldn’t get started on that or I’ll be here all night typing….). 
 
Like: if Batman was open-source and free for anyone to put their prints on – then I’d understand a lot more. And that would be cool. Or (on the flip side of that – but still the same thing) I mean – The Dark Knight Strikes Again. I mean: I could be wrong about this: but isn’t the general critical consensus that it’s like one of the worst things ever? And a disgrace to the memory of The Dark Knight Returns? And how dare Frank Miller defile Batman in such a horrific way? Because you know: the purity of Batman must be maintained or whatever. But then yeah – the garish noise and messy anarchy is why I like it so much. 
 
 

I don’t have a problem with different interpretations of Batman but as a fairly obsessive comics fan at the time I was just surprised at how unoriginal and dull the story was.  DC had an Elseworlds imprint which told stories of their characters in alternative settings, there wasn’t much in the way of plot in TDKSA that hadn’t previously happened in one or other of those stories.


Obviously it was a lot easier to do something different in the 1980s when there was far more unexplored potential in the character but it all just read like Miller was making it up as he went along compared to the fantastic storytelling of the original Dark Knight story or his ‘Daredevil ; Born Again’, which is for my money the best superhero story ever.
 

It’s clear from the work he did in between (primarily Sin City) that Miller was becoming less interested in telling intricate stories and more concerned with the expressionistic storytelling and this book just read like an excuse for him to draw superheroes doing cool stuff (which, come to think of it sounds pretty similar to everything I’ve read about that new film) and it’s pretty good on those terms (and the colouring choices were inventive too) but there wasn’t much about it that seemed to merit a reread which is why I gave it away after reading it and haven’t had any real desire to reread it since…  Although, (fun fact!) it’s one of the few superhero stories Pat ‘I hate Superheroes’ Mills likes so I’m probably missing something.

 

As for Batman being an immortal icon, who knows?  But I thought this article about Superman which touches on the topic was interesting…

http://www.newsfromme.com/2016/03/28/creative-oversight/

 
 
 

 

One of the things that I really really love about The Dark Knight Strikes Again is how (for me) it’s one of the best sequels ever of any medium. Purely for the fact that has nothing in common with the thing it’s sequelling. I mean: the only other example I can think of is how Alien (horror movie) was followed by Aliens (action movie). But even then – I mean: I’m sure if I could be bothered to google it I could easily find something that talked about how similar the beats of both films are: particularly the end – with the whole setting the self-destruct – going back for the cat/kid – alien smuggling itself on board – etc etc. 

 
But yeah – I mean: if someone didn’t tell me I don’t think I would have been able to work out that Dark Knight Strikes Again is a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns – hell: if it wasn’t for Frank Millar’s blockly hands and feet style: I’m not sure I would have even be able to tell it was by the same person (or people – sorry Lynn Varley) 
 
Like: when I talk/write about stuff – I spend most of my time bitching about things (capitalism, ideology and Fables) but if there’s something that I’m very much for – it’s unrestrained creative expression: and to see that take place in a space where you would typically think a creator would be under the most pressure (I mean: oh my god – writing a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns? That’s like trying to do Citizen Kane 2: Kane Harder or whatever. I mean – this is a book that basically helped to define a medium you know?) And you know: it’s all about the market and making money and building on the pre-existing brand recognition and etc etc blah: and then for Frank Miller to just take all of that expectation and completely ignore it and to this thing that’s totally different and totally radical. I mean: I was kinda trying to say before that you can’t really use Batman to be  punk rock – only well: The Dark Knight Strikes Again is still the most punk rock thing imaginable. 
 
Altho well – seeing how the Barbican Music Library is currently hosting a punk exhibition (which is cool and you should go totally go to) I mean yeah – what is punk anyway?

 

 

A sequel that absolutely no-one was crying out for and so it seemed Miller felt he didn’t need to put any effort in. I don’t mind changing the point of ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ to being the start of the adventures of Pensioner Batman rather than ‘the Last Batman Story’, I don’t mind Batman becoming right-wing in his old age, what I want is a good story and I don’t think we get that on any level. With ‘TDKR’ we had characters making choices and then living with those choices, Superman makes a deal with the U.S. Government so ends up being forced to fight Batman, in ‘TDKSA’ it turns out that Superman knew that Batman was right because Batman is better at everything except raw strength than Superman it’s just that Superman couldn’t do anything because Luthor and Braniac had Kandor prisoner. Fascist Wonder Woman is not a problem. Stupid fascist Wonder Woman is intolerable. The only points where Miller seems to be making any effort at all is in his lazy swipes at celebrity culture, to the point where the vox pops seem to be telling more of a story than the super heroes. And the artwork? For better or worse, even when Miller’s other work lacked in the story element he was at least interesting visually, but with ‘TDKSA’ characters are frequently hanging in empty space or standing on sparse sets, I guess if Frank can’t draw his prostitutes then Frank isn’t happy.

I’d love to think that this is Frank sticking it to his fans, that he’s doing a “You want me to do more Batman? Fine, choke on it!” but I don’t think it is. I genuinely think this is what he thinks is good work (seeing as ‘Holy Terror’ isn’t any better and was something he genuinely felt a need to spunk out into the universe) which is rather sad really.
 
“This is a line. This is another. This is a third. Now draw a comic.” Really?
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
 
 

 

—If you would like to stay sane, please mash on your space key for a while.–
 
Tam – 
 
Honestly, I’d be suprised if as a writer, Miller plans anything too thoroughly (though on Born Again, since Dennis O Neil was the editor, I think Miller might have had some of his brakes pulled), especially working with someone as beautifully exact as Mazzuchelli, it can feel like a far more intricately put together thing since you’re not watching it through the firestorm prism of Miller and Varleys art.
 
For me, reread wise, I keep going back for more. At first there’s a ton of bad ass Batman soap operatics and wish fulfillment (“The Man who beat you”) but I keep getting pulled back to it by the kind of normal person, bug eye moral society discussion it’s so wonderfully obsessed with (think city wide, Horace and Pete…with latex!), and the rapid panel pacing of the media debates and the monologues from the priest and the business man and Jim Gordon of Pearl Harbour – for a superhero comic it’s wonderfully obsessed with the views of the ordinary man.
 
 
Characters over creators – 
 
I can see your frustration here (I sound like an HR rep trying to talk a senior partner into putting their trousers back on in), but often there’s a good reason for this. Especially when you name check the likes of Batman and Doctor Who.
 
Take the Doctor, as a character, cumulatively, there isn’t much there. He’s a maverick, with a moral value set that is incredibly fluid (you can buy him either going “EVERY LIFE IS SACRED YOU MEANIE” yet somehow managing to blow up an entire goddamned planet because corruption or necessity or grimdark reboot o clock). He’s less a character than a platform, a way for writers to take an immensely charismatic, super smart deus ex of a hero character, with any human flaw needed whenever, tailor them through a certain performance and have him race through all of time and space. Also he’s the proto-hipster.
 
(Rick and Morty’s Rick inversely, uses a really detailed characterisation to justify him doing absolutely anything he wants in the most drunkenly hedonistic way possible, whenever he wants, in any dimension).
 
Batman too, he has a stubborn dedication to justice, he’s a dick and has a really fucked up internship scheme on the go. That’s roughly it. The stories can be really fun and light and playful, they can be thoughtful detective noirs on modern justice or they can be vaguely terrifying revenge fantasies on the Drumpf reccomended reading list.
 
So you talk about these characters, oft more than their creators, because they offer a specific platform for storytelling, you can explore really untrod avenues of narrative and fucked up takes on “the heroes quest” in a way you couldn’t with a new guy, because it would necessitate a shit ton of exposition.
 
(See the opening scene of Jokers Favour an episode of Batman Animated, where a middle manager curses someone who cut them off on the freeway, only to find out that they cursed out The Joker, for a perfect example of this kind of liberty).
 
Plus, essentially, when you write for a character like Batman or Doctor Who, you willingly accede to a shared creative vaccum, you’re basically turning up to a fireside story, where everyone gets to add a chapter to a story. Rarely is the writer bigger than the character here. Olivier is not bigger than Hamlet.

The power is ours
IP Ownership – 
 
Ugh. No no no no no. I can’t abide this idea. I’m sorry, I know that makes me an asshole, some narrowminded comic continuity obsessive but no. NO.
 
Characters and their definition of what they are is not a matter for the IP rightsholder alone. Kevin “E&Y beancounter” Tsujihara does not get to decide what Superman, a pillar of American cultural iconography, suddenly is, no matter how much fun Zac “attack” Snyder is on coke.
 
Copyrights lend control over the commercial depiction of a character, so if you want to make money off of your Batman story – Warner Bros has to be on board. But if people find a fan story, and it gains equitable stead with the WB approved tales, go for it bro. The recent Star Trek fan litigation by the rightsholders only happened when they tried to make money out of it.
 
If Warner Bros suddenly went out and said “The Dark Knight Returns” is not a valid depiction of Batman – would that story lose weight and influence? Would the image it has lent to what we collectively view as a “Batman” suddenly evaporate?
 
There’s an ownership and control, but the idea that they set the rules and boundaries and the audience happily nibbles at the narrative crumbs, instead of a symbiotic relationship between creator and culture that lends these characters their prominence and definition isn’t one I can abide.
 
Moons ago, I did alot of work on modern IP law for my degree and it does many terrible powerful things – but it has never, ever bestowed the power on a boardroom of bean counters to define our view on what characters are.
 
Or would you like Whittingdales parliamentary Media Justice Abomination League to tell you what Doctor Who’s name actually is because they think they know business?
 
 
–Okay, actual comic.–
 
 
HOW DO YOU NOT LOVE THIS THING?
 
I get there was that anticipated nostalgia rush of a TDKR sequel, it’s basically like a heroin addict turning up to a dealer after a brutal, savage, agonising week and being offered strawberry ribena. Of course fans were pissy, it’s a sequel that burns down it’s predecessor with a shit eating grin.
 
“I was was sentimental back when I was old”
 
(I love that line, I think I’m going to use it at my mothers funeral once the napalm settles).
 
Frank Miller made a sequel to TDKR and Batman doesn’t turn up (outside of shadowy near misses) until 80 pages in. And that’s when he’s wielding cartoon Kryptonite fists and growling “get out of my cave”.
 
Actually, that’s a big thing I dig about this – Millers operatic pop culture Hemingway dialogue mashed against a Loony Tunes with bloodied intestines aesthetic.
 
If you ever wanted to see a true auteurial vision in superhero comics, this is it – it’s a fuck you to the grimdark tone he was responsible for, a fuck you to the fans who expected more “the man who beat you” – Miller transcends the character by happily using his creative name to do whatever the Sam hell he wants with him. His Batman is still a character that falls within the realms of “Batman” as a character, but he uses him in such an insane plot, with some a brilliantly mad aesthetic (there is no comic, not from the golden age, not from “nuuu fiddee tooo” that looks an iota like these fucking comics).
 
Oh and the story? Fuck yes. It’s Frank Miller going post 9/11 nuts with complete control over the DC universe and skewering every avenue of political diatribe like that. 
 
Look at the Luthor plotline – the man predicted the surveillance state, what it could be used for and gave a surprisingly detailed (all dem back up servers) idea of how unstoppable it could be. We don’t need Snowden, we need Miller’s Batman! Make something great again! Wooo.
 
The Question and Green Arrow going ape shit on TV, Objectivism vs Green Arrow liberalism? Amazing. Hilarious. Don’t be boring.
 
The psycho Robin return? Nuts, terrifying and such a brilliant way to nail home the “fuck your nostalgia” vibe Miller was clearly having so much fun with. Plus old second rate heroes getting pissed in a pub and then getting killed off -woah.
 
It’s a mad, bitter, fun adventure. It’s Julius Schwartz on bad acid. It’s Batman Zur-En-ARRRR-IM-A-PIRATE-WIT-VIEWS-ON-CIVIL-LIBERTIES.
 
It’s the entire language of DC superheros bent and broken in the name of telling fans where to go with nostalgic obsession as a political fringe voice destroys the entire state of US politics because he wants to.
 
That’s awesome. Love that. Cherish it.
 
Because now we have DKIII – and it’s some watered down shareholder syrup.
 
…..
 
Also Lynn Varley.
 
NO ONE TALKS ABOUT HER. NO ONE.
 
Everyone talks about these pieces as some singular work, I’m sorry but they’re not. Miller is arguably the most important autuer in Superhero comic writing but whenever he worked with Lynn GODDAMNED AWESOME Varley, she made his work sing. (I’m going to spare you a rant on Klaus Janson).
 
Look:
 
Dark Knight Returns (watercolours):
 

 

 
Dark Knight Strikes Again:
 
 

 

 
Franks pencils and words are the driving force, to be sure, but goddamn, it’s Varley that keeps your eyes on the page when he clearly doesn’t give a shit about a panel he FUCKING WROTE. Varley who runs with the chameleon colour palette, shifting from pop neon, to the bitter greys of social realist pieces to casually evoking the bold colours of gold age super hero comic book-ery.
 
And unlike, say, Alex Ross, her colour choices are so bold and perfect and stark that she rarely has to play with tone or depth. She looks at a page, a cloth, a detail and she says
 
“Magenta”
 
and lo and fucking behold – that bit, is the most perfectly magenta thing you have ever seen. And is someone tried to make it red, you’d look at them like they were some mad savage.
 
I get why fans were turned off with TDKSA, a story that willfully rejected and obliterated the aesthetic and tone of its mythic predecessor, but come ON, Varley’s work here is the original and so far unsurpassed master class in how to use digital colours – she proved how it could advance the medium, create looks fans had never seen. She’s James Cameron and she Avatar-ed digital colouring for the comic book fan. So hate the story if you feel like being boring and sullen, but give that artist her credence, 
 
Still don’t agree? Look at 300! Look at Ronin!
 
Even the most daring experimental colourists, like say Frazer Irving or Sienkiwicz (Sinnywicks?) can’t think of someone right now shut up yo face  have never quite touched this kind of air.
 
Lynn Varley is arguably the most bad ass colorist to ever grace superhero comics. Hell maybe comics in general. I wish she’d make more things. She’s the Bill Watterson of comic book colours.
 
But yeah – 
 
TDKSA is a fearless, mad, brilliant and hilariously fun ride with Miller rewriting the superhero comic and what it can do, one last time, before he got Gonorrhea from the Trump school of political thought.
Okay the coffee is wearing off. I’m going to go ignore my job in a different capacity.
 

RAMSEY
Twitter

 

These have been a fun & interesting read.

 
I remember picking these up as they were coming out and loving the Robinson Crusoe twist opening and being balled over by Varney’s approach to colouring the book. Digital colours were quite new then and instead of using them how most of the big digital colourists at the time (Joe Chiodo, Digital Chameleon – from what I can just drenge up from my morning brain) she played Jazz with it and went for something barnstorming synthetic. It reminds me when people found Andy Warhol’s digital art that he did on MS Paint (hahaha) but all the art critics dug it for Warhol exploring what was unique to digital colours & experimenting with early crude image manipulation. Varney doesn’t completely succeed but I commend her spirit of experiementation & willing to embrace a relatively new media and fucking with it on such a public stage – she might of got away with it if it was a small comic instead of the sequel to one of the biggest graphic novel ever! It’s like Chistopher Nolan sacking Wally Pfister after The Dark Knight and replacing him with the dude who shot ‘Springbreakers’ 😂😂😂
 
Also if the Daredevil or The Dark Knight Returns arose from a formative mugging then we can’t discount the impact 9/11 played on this book.
 
This was up and going before 9/11 and as soon as it happened it stopped the story dead in its tracks and it’s clear that whatever story Miller conceived for The Dark Knight Strikes Again was cast away or retooled to include it. In one way I love that because it makes it like a Dickens serialisation that changes but also would of loved to of read the original outline if there ever was one. It was a massive bigger because we had to wait AGES for the next issue while he changed direction – which we didn’t know at the time, we thought he was just being tardy.
 
Knowing how massively right wing Miller became – he kinda was before but at least there was a counterpoint arguement in The Dark Knight Returns but he’s gone all out now. So could it be said that The Dark Knight Strikes Again was the turning point between the Old Miller & The New one?
 
 

 

I’m not sure if you would want to read the pre 9-11 version of DK2, I’d be willing to bet it would have been more similar to ‘Give My Liberty’, the competent but leaden pro Libertarian story (he dedicated it to Ayn Rand) which poor Dave Gibbons had to draw.  A strong contender for most underwhelming comic ever, given the talent involved!

 
 
You can draw a line from ‘Batman Year One’ to ‘TDKR’, you can also draw a line from ‘All-Star Batman’ to ‘TDKSA’, it’s very difficult to draw a line from ‘Batman year One’ to ‘All-Star Batman’ to ‘TDKR’ to ‘TDKSA’, based on what happened to Miller in his life in the meanwhile.  I don’t mind having Batman as the one sane man in a world of fools and criminals, I don’t mind all the other superheroes being stupid idiots, I don’t mind Wonder Woman being a straw lesbian separatist, I don’t mind Batman being so right-wing as to be off the charts, it’s the slapdash lazy storytelling that irritates me.
 

RAMSEY
Twitter

 

Off topic – sorry – but I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water with ‘Give Me Liberty’. I see the scary Pro-Libertarian aspect to part of the politics for sure (the Rand dedication is worrying) but as a Black comics reader I see Martha Washington as a fantastically revolutionary character with American comics and give Miller & Gibbons much props for that story.

 
I stumbled across this brilliant vid a coupla years ago of academic Aimee Cox talking about how that story figured into the American sociopolitical climate of its time and what it meant for her – if you have a spare 9 minutes is definitely worth a watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSxIvJIV-4k
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